Matt Hancock reveals discovery of new coronavirus variant
Downing Street has insisted there are currently no plans to change the “Christmas bubble” policy between December 23 and 27 so that up to three families can meet indoors, despite the growing fears of a new spread. London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be placed in tier 3 from tonight, which will see the closure of hospitality following a “very sharp” rise in cases. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said higher infections in the South East may have partly been caused by a newly identified variant of coronavirus which is growing faster than the existing one.
It comes as the latest figures showed a further 232 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, while there were a further 20,263 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on coronavirus, said the price a relaxation over Christmas “could well be very high”.
He told Times Radio: “Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?
“It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”
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Professor Stephen Reicher, of the University of St Andrews, added: “Right now we are heading towards disaster.
“Given high levels of infection across the country and the increasing levels in some areas (such as London) it is inevitable that if we all do choose to meet up over Christmas then we will pay the price in the new year.”
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Danny Mortimer, also questioned whether “these rules will be enough to protect the population in the short term”.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty also warned people should not meet at Christmas just because they can.
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He said: “The point of this (relaxation of rules) is for, under certain circumstances, families who wish to, to get together, but they really have to be very, very careful.
“And in particular, incredibly careful if they’re around people who are vulnerable, who are at very high risk of this virus.”
The decision to move London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire into Tier 3 will almost 10.8 million people from tomorrow.
Mr Hancock admitted the measures would be a “blow” to people and businesses as he addressed a Downing Street press conference yesterday.
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But he said: “We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action.
“This rise in transmission, as well as this new variant of Covid. should be a warning to us all that even after such a difficult year, we must stay vigilant.”
Virologist Dr Chris Smith said that the decision to move London into Tier 3 restrictions had been “pretty much on the cards” for the last few weeks.
But he added that despite being spread more quickly, the new variant of coronavirus may not be any “nastier.”
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He told BBC Breakfast: “Once it infects you, once it gets in you, it doesn’t actually make you any iller.
“That appears to be the pattern at the moment and the other crucial question at the moment is ‘is that change sufficient to side step what the vaccine does to protect us?
“For now the answer seems to be no, but that’s something we need to watch.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay sent a stern warning that relaxations in coronavirus rules over the Christmas period should not be “misinterpreted” and that people needed to do “the minimum” to act responsibly.
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Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: “It’s not that the restrictions are being lifted in their entirety – we’re not going from Tier 3 to some sort of tier zero.
“What we’re saying, in a limited sense, is that many families who have not been together all year, who will want to see each other, three households can come together for that Christmas period.
“It’s not that all restrictions are being lifted.”
Mr Barclay added he understood people wanted to see their families over the festive period and acknowledged that it had been a “very difficult” year.
He said: “I want to see my own parents over the Christmas period.
“I won’t see my parents over Christmas, but I will see my parents-in-law and those are the decisions many families will take.
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“We’ve got to trust the British people to act responsibly and do the minimum that is possible for them in their family situation.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan urged Boris Johnson to look again at the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We heard from Matt Hancock yesterday that it appears the Government is looking at this again. I would encourage them to do so if they are.
“The concern is this – the rules have been relaxed for five days, allowing household mixing for up to three different households and inevitably when people are in their own households, they tend to be less vigilant.
“And my concern is that many people may have the virus and not realise it. They could pass the virus on to older relations.”